Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 2

     James begins the second lecture by describing "The Pragmatic Method":

"Is the world one or many? -- fated or free? -- material or spiritual? -- here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. ...What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?  If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives men practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle."(pg. 21)

This is typical of the early 20th century obsession with eliminating metaphysics from discourse.  This will turn into a full-scale neurosis by the middle of the century.  This is James' response.  It has the benefit of not ending up in yet another round of disputes over underdetermination, falsification, verification, etc.. -- at least not so far. 

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definited instants of your life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."(pg. 23)

This is James' expression for the kinds of things you find all over early 20th century philosophy of science.  He says, "It is a method only.  But the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the 'temperament' of philosophy.  Teachers of the ultra-rationalistic type would be frozen ... Science and metaphysics would come much nearer together, would in fact work absolutely hand in hand."(pg. 24)
     He goes on to discuss the change in the nature of physical laws.  He remarks that previously laws were considered exact manifestations of the mind of God.  Obviously one thinks of Newton's laws here.  These lectures were given about a year after Einstein's first papers, which were, at least to my "mind', a real vindication of principle and exactitude in the laws of the universe; this was an idea Einstein would remain committed to.

      James says, on the other hand, "the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations.  The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful."  Things have changed a lot in the last 105 years, what with people trying to arrive at theories of everything and all... 

Confronted with observations that conflict with our pre-existing ideas, we "save" as much of our previous opinions as we can, since we are all "extreme conservatives" in the matter of belief.  This has shades of much later ideas in Quine's essays, at least there seems to me to be a resonance here.  There is nothing that determines outright how exactly theories ought to be changed; we are conservative, which does not constitute a logically valid method for altering ones opinions. 

Then he says: " far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them."(pg. 28). He is RIGHT here.

"A new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock."(pg. 28-29) 

     What to say about all the above?  Well, the continuity of experience suggests that in general the principles that successfully describe large swaths of our experience should be preserved in the face of new data.  So, our conservative tendency is not as capricious as all that after all.  He gives the example of radiation.  He says that it appears to violate the principle of conservation of energy.  The consistency and constancy of experience suggests that conservation of energy should be preserved if at all possible.  In fact, I have no doubt that the principle itself helped guide further investigation in such a way that we now have a very well elaborated theory of particle physics that is much more successful as a theory than what would be the case if we jettisoned conservation in this case -- well there's all the energy-time uncertainty stuff, but that's for another time.

     He summarizes:

"Such then would be the scope of pragmatism -- first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth."(pg. 29)

I suppose what he means by a "genetic" theory of truth is how new truths originate by glomming onto the set of preexisting truths in such a way as to produce the least disturbance; that is what truth is.

About theology he says(all caps in the original):


He emphasizes "comfort" as a use of religious ideas.

He goes on:

"Let me now say only this , that truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it.  THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS."(pg. 34)

He goes on to say that the only reason the search for truth is pursued is because of the good it does us in a practical sense.  If it didn't have those consequences we would stop pursuing it; pursuing it would not even be considered a virtue.  I actually am not convinced that the "truth" is necessarily a good thing.  I am sometimes forced by evidence to believe things that don't make me feel very good.  I don't think, at least not anymore, that I can believe anything I want; I can only believe what I'm ABLE to believe.  In this regard I am not exactly a pragmatist.  Perhaps I ought to believe the best of the things I CAN believe.

He goes on:

"....the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.  Truths have once for all this desparate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them"(pg. 35)

This is true, but there are some ideas I seem to be committed to because "they make sense"; they satisfy my mind for some reason -- and this eventhough they make me UNCOMFORTABLE in other ways.  What am I to do?

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